In 1971, the thirty year-old Placido Domingo made his Covent Garden début as Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca and in the intervening forty years, he has given two hundred and thirty performances in more than twenty-five roles for Royal Opera House audiences. On Thursday night, ROH gave the first of two Antonio Pappano-conducted 'Celebration' evenings to recognise Domingo's extraordinary forty-year performance history at the Royal Opera House, presenting the world's most celebrated tenor in the final acts of three dramatic Verdi operas: Otello, Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra.

Perez and Domingo © Royal Opera House / Catherine Ashmore
Perez and Domingo
© Royal Opera House / Catherine Ashmore

In a change to the programme, the evening opened rather than ended with Otello. This may have been a result of Domingo wanting to begin with the tenor role and ease himself into baritone, but no explanation was given, and as the curtain opened on Marina Poplavskaya's praying Desdemona, the anticipation in the Royal Opera House was palpable. Domingo first sung the manipulated Moor in 1975, and it is one of the defining roles of his career. Few tenors can come close to his acting prowess, let alone his vocal talents, but it is difficult to imagine any singer performing a role at seventy that he embodied at forty, and it was impossible not to feel nervous about what may unfold.

When he made his entrance, however, it was like stepping back in time. His physicality seemed somewhat spooky - many remarked that in costume, he appeared almost as he had when he first portrayed the role, and from start to finish, he gave us a master class in anguish and passion. Bounding energetically about the stage, there seemed to be no mismatch between him and Poplavskaya, who is thirty-six years his junior. The voice has undoubtedly aged, but it is still strong and full of a dark, muscular warmth that seems almost impossible. His 'Niun mi terma' was accomplished and deeply atmospheric, the grief stricken 'Desdemona, Desdemona' summoned from the very depths of the soul.

After a long interval in which Domingo was transformed from Otello into Rigoletto, we were given a taste of his move into the world of the baritone. Accompanied by Francesco Meli as the Duke and Ailyn Perez (one of the success stories of his Operalia competition) as Gilda, Domingo played out the final act of the tragic story of the hunchback jester who attempts to have his master killed, but in a cruel twist of fate receives the murdered body of his beloved daughter Gilda instead. Despite missing some of the required vocal depth, Domingo's portrayal of the heartbreaking anti-hero is so emotionally charged that it is easy to forget you are watching the world's most celebrated tenor playing a baritone role. His tragic final duet with the delicate-voiced Perez had me on the edge of my seat, and as Pappano struck up the final dramatic flourish of Verdi's masterpiece and Domingo let out Rigoletto's devastated cry it was impossible to stifle a tear.

In the third and final act, we were given the ending of Simon Boccanegra, the opera that marked Domingo's first move into baritone territory. Since his début in the role in 2009, he has received critical acclaim for his portrayal of the tragic Doge, who in this final act, is succumbing to the effects of a slow-working poison after being reunited with his daughter Amelia (Poplavskaya) the product of his relationship with the now dead Maria. There was something incredibly prophetic about the change in programme order that resulted in Simon Boccanegra bringing the evening to a close. It seemed to mark Domingo's extraordinary ability to adapt his talents rather than let them fade away, and of the three Verdi endings, this was surely the most powerful and moving.

Here, Pappano and the ROH Orchestra were at the height of their powers, the beautiful, heartbreaking strings quivering beneath Boccanegra's final moments, and Domingo's interpretation of one of Verdi's most demanding heroes absolutely spine-tingling. When singing baritone roles, Domingo has his detractors, but he has a unique ability to channel every conceivable emotion into the rich, dark warmth of that incredibly powerful voice. His final “Maria!” as he edged slowly towards Poplavskaya brought a tear to the eye, and as he fell dramatically in death, the effect was absolutely devastating.

As he took his final curtain calls to rapturous applause, foot stomping and an avalanche of carnations, the tenor was visibly moved by the adoration of the Covent Garden audience. This may have been an evening of final acts, but Domingo's vocal strength and emotional intensity made it clear that, even after five decades of performance, his singing career is far from nearing its end. “Clasp me to your heart” he had sung in the last few moments of his Simon Boccanegra, and we certainly did.